Criticism: The Importance of Being Ironic, Part One

In my opinion irony is a much and unreasonably maligned concept. Associating irony with offensive or subversive intent some relegate it to outer rhetorical darkness. This is especially true in some religious circles where irony is looked upon as being dangerous to steadfast belief. But is learning to identify and engage irony in fact more useful and needful than we might suspect? Could attempting to devalue or deny its power in fact create, escalate, or confirm the very ironic tensions we’re trying to avoid? In this multiple-part post I explore the power of irony and its potential artistic and spiritual value to people of all stripes. Note: Footnotes will appear at the end of the last post in the series, then I’ll put in links connecting all parts into one footnoted whole.

Williamsburg, Virginia–the maze behind the Governor’s Mansion. I’m in Mrs. Carter’s fourth grade class. Paths run left and right through manicured hedgerows. A guide gathers us at the maze’s entrance and says, “Start by going to your right.” Too young to worry about minotaurs, off we scamper through green corridors to find the maze’s secret center.

Competition to arrive first is fierce. I don’t want to be last but looking around see that I nearly am. I back out of dead ends and stumble into others at intersections. Then, I find it–the maze’s center. It’s a small, grassy opening with a white bench–rather disappointing. Shouldn’t there be something mysterious here–a statue of a unicorn or some strange but wonderful machine? Oh well!

Tagging the bench I whirl and rush off. I’m concentrating on finding a way out but after running only a few steps find myself right back at the entrance. I stop. It can’t be! Confused, I fight back tears. Truth dawns: If I’d turned left at the entrance instead of right as directed I’d have reached the maze’s “center” in seconds. I feel someone is enjoying a good joke at my expense. Bitter! And what’s that I feel, like somebody laughing at me? I have no name for it.

Neither did the world have a name for it at first, though by choosing to become “as the gods” Adam and Eve lost paradise and while suitors ravaged his estate Odysseus sat among them disguised as a ragged shepherd. Today we needn’t think long before identifying the phenomenon at work in such stories as something we call “irony,” but while ironic turnabouts and tensions have been key ingredients in stories since ancient times, centuries passed before this strange twisting of affairs received a proper name. Wayne Booth summarizes the concept’s development in A Rhetoric of Irony:

Before the eighteenth century, irony was one rhetorical
device among many, the least important of the rhetorical
tropes. By the end of the Romantic period, it had become
a grand Hegelian concept, with its own essence and necessities:
or a synonym for romanticism, or even an essential attribute
of God (1).

D. C. Muecke writes that irony ” “¦ was responded to before it was named and consequently before there could have been a concept of it; and the word existed before it was applied to the phenomenon (2).” He follows the development of the word back to Plato’s Republic. While Plato makes liberal use of what’s now identified as Socratic irony, Muecke says Plato used the word irony itself to mean “something like a “˜smooth, low-down way of taking people in'” (3). Demosthenes, Theophrastus, and Aristotle used the word when talking of braggarts, of people who displayed false modesty, and of manipulative people (4). Muecke says the word “irony” does not appear in English until 1502 and didn’t come into common use until the eighteenth century (5). But since then, its discovery and the naming of its parts has led to the intensification of its study and practice until its use and prestige have nearly exceeded that of any other rhetorical figure. Booth identifies a few categories for it (6) and Muecke lists no fewer than fifteen categories of irony operating on all levels of everyday experience (7).

Although irony may be defined simply as a tension that exists between appearance and reality, the multitude of scholarly books written on it combine with numberless twists in everyday speech, initiation rites, jokes, visual arts, music, literary works, and even facial expressions to suggest that even though irony itself is a common occurrence, like nakedness, our fascination with it isn’t so simple.

Many people harboring sincere religious beliefs find irony suspect. The reasons are many, but one is that irony erodes certainty, and many consider certainty a necessary element of belief. Some find irony repulsive because they associate it solely with such uncharitable rhetorical stances such as sarcasm, cynicism, satire, and sardonic wit. While all of these are indeed forms of irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and sardonic wit operate as lower grades of irony. At its best, irony does much more than reflect mere glints of insight off sharp edges of rhetorical weaponry.

In its more sophisticated forms irony facilitates spiritual phenomena such as conversion and repentance. In fact, irony may provide anyone with means for discovery or liberation; it is the vehicle of release from hitherto unrealized burdens of incorrectness. Our limited perspectives make us short sighted and where our perspectives end, we imagine boundaries. Irony, or the ironic destruction, occurs when circumstances and consciousness combine to test a cherished boundary, enabling the discovery that the boundary isn’t really there. As a dissolver of boundaries, irony may lie at the molten center of every figure of speech, since all figures of speech shift our perception across apparent borders. A common definition for metaphor has it that metaphor compares two seemingly unlike things. Cleanth Brooks describes metaphor as a direct means in itself of representing a truth incommunicable by any other means (8). Such boundary crossing exists in the rhetorical figure paradox as well. On its surface a paradox appears impossible to understand; on its literal level its words create a seemingly insurmountable wall of mutual exclusions. Yet anyone familiar with paradox understands that, as per Brooks’s description of metaphor, paradox acts as an only means of opening a way and providing access to the inaccessible. The same holds true for a symbol: it is both itself and something else. Most–perhaps all–rhetorical devices contain a point of no return where the device dissolves into itself, revealing hitherto unperceived paths for meaning.

In any confrontation with irony, destruction is imminent. But irony’s destruction differs from common concepts of destruction–it’s a destruction that destroys and renews with the same fire; it kills and makes alive. We reach out in blindness and touch something uncanny with our hands, something that threatens because in our present state it’s unknowable, but it must be known because it’s at hand. Now a choice must be made: either we accept the truth about the boundaries we’ve set–that they aren’t really there and exist only as figments of our decisions–or we remain certain that things will continue as we’ve always believed them to be and will never be anything else.

Endless ironic energies erupt in literature, scripture included. For instance, in John 11 (KJV)–the raising of Lazarus–a powerful ironic moment unfolds where what appears to be possible collides with what is in truth possible. Martha accosts Christ with an assertion, remarkable in itself: “If thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” Christ replies, “Thy brother shall rise again.” When Martha replies, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” she’s responding out of her level of understanding, which to her credit has its own degree of faith. But Jesus puts his meaning another way, and one can’t help but feel he’s giving her a chance to ask something different: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet he shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believeth thou this?” At this point, Martha hedges. She may know the question she could ask but dares not ask it because it stretches belief. Or perhaps she hasn’t thought to ask but has remained below the level of Christ’s offering, speaking to him out of her highest understanding of what is possible. At any rate, she does not say, “Lord, can you raise Lazarus from the dead?” because asking such a question requires overriding one’s perception of the finality of death. Of course, Jesus’s actual raising of Lazarus breaks through this barricade in her desires.

As we learn to live with irony, we become acquainted with an extremely effective teacher. David Richter says of it that ” “¦ to become an accomplice in irony, the reader must 1) reject the literal meaning as untenable; 2) consider a series of alternative meanings–among which may be included that the speaker is stupid or inconscient, along with various ironic possibilities; 3) make inferences about the speaker’s probable knowledge and attitudes; and 4) decide, on the basis of the putative attitudes, which of the various possibilities in step two is most likely to be correct ( 9). A logical process to be sure, but these same mental steps occur in many kinds of creative thinking and articulation ranging from the mechanical processes of devising ways to build an airplane, to reading a poem, to working out one’s repentance. Richter makes a connection between the irony’s mechanisms and the dawning of spiritual insight:

When we are brought up short by the sudden
consciousness of our failure of sympathy with
unfortunate humanity, or of our own pharisaical
judgements upon the narrator’s inferred behavior,
or our own uncontrollable dirty-mindedness, we
have received salutary lessons in humility–not the
least of Christian virtues–and in a sense of our own
fallen nature (10).

Irony arranges encounters with true motives. For those adept at sidestepping true motives, including their motives for adhering to particular beliefs against all evidence to the contrary, irony inspires discomfort at least and anger and terror at worst. But by the same turn it provides for better choices and opportunities for fresh starts. Again, to draw from the Bible: Through a series of seemingly cruel and deceptive tricks, Joseph provides Judah the chance to relive his previous terrible choice when he sold into slavery the very brother who sits disguised before him. This time it’s Joseph’s brother Benjamin that Judah is at risk of betraying–but the choice of whether to protect him or to conveniently abandon him is similar in kind to his earlier betrayal of Joseph. This time, Judah makes the right choice: “Let thy Servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me? Preadventure I see the evil that shall come upon my father.” For all outward appearances Judah seems the victim of a cruel joke, just as he once made Joseph the victim of one. But in offering up his own life and freedom instead of someone else’s Judah rises above his past and this ironic twist of fate becomes for him a fiery redemptive moment.

9 thoughts on “Criticism: The Importance of Being Ironic, Part One”

  1. Fine post, PG. It makes me suspect you know a good bit more about irony than I do. I look forward to additional installments. 

    Posted by Dave

  2. Thanks for your essay, Patricia. Reflecting on your claim regarding religious aversion to irony and its ilk, it occurred to me how very irony-free official Mormon discourse often is. There are some completely benign reasons for this: certain messages demand plain and direct treatment. And some ironies of language may not translate well into scores of other langauges.

    Yet what do we lose if we isulate ourselves from irony for other reasons—because it can be jarring and humiliating, because as you observe, it demands reconsideration from those comforable with provisional and limited perspectives? Such insulation seems morally dangerous. You cite a distinct episode from the life of Christ. Others occurred to me as I read: leaders attacking him for (they must have told themselves) the sake of the people, followers wanting bread instead of the bread of life, mighty Jehovah hung on a cross between theives (complete with ironic sign), and so forth. 

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  3. Patricia, I love reading your observations–they’re always so nuanced and thoughtful. I especially like your readings of Biblical passages here. Thanks. 

    Posted by Eve

  4. Shawn, thanks for commenting.

    Yet what do we lose if we isulate ourselves from irony for other reasons—because it can be jarring and humiliating, because as you observe, it demands reconsideration from those comforable with provisional and limited perspectives? 

    If irony is the tension between what appears to be real (or what we accept as being real) and what actually is real, it may not be possible to insulate ourselves from irony. Maybe at best we can only choose to remain unconscious of the tension and go on with life as if our particular vision of it is all there is.

    IMO the best moments in literature occur when one or more characters experience a breakthrough after coming face to face with the limits of their understanding. Where literature is concerned, give me being brought up short any time! That, and profound truth rendered in beautiful words.

    Eve, thanks for the kind words.


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. Patricia,
    Just after I read this I went upstairs to shower. I was thinking about a reply I’m writing to your post on Mattea and God narratives, and listening to Morning Edition, and on came a story about Death Valley Elementary, a one-room schoolhouse with 11 students, including a kndergartner, Taylor Alford, who couldn’t speak at the beginning of the school year. Through the teacher’s determination, and help from other students and a retired teacher who worked 30 years with preschoolers, Taylor now does 1st grade math, reads some, and speaks. (
    If That link doesn’t work in the future, today is Monday, May 30, 2005)

    I count such serendipitous moments as irony because in a novel they would be perfect symbolic moments, and perfectly unbelievable. We don’t like to think that our lives happen mythopoeically, that we might be thinking about a mother’s work to enlarge her daughter’s world and then immediately hear a radio story about a teacher’s similar work.

    Serendipitous moments undercut our comfortable belief that we live without symbol and ritual, that those things only occur in story, and that when we see them in scripture they were put there for symbolic value and not because the story actually happened that way. (Now don’t I sound pompous and pedantic?)


    Posted by Harlow

  6. Looks like I posted this reply twice. I didn’t think it went through the first time.

    Posted by harlow

  7. Harlow, always happy to see you drop in! I don’t see pedantry and pompousness in your comment, though if they were there such characteristics would hardly qualify as impediments here in the blogosphere, where it is said all hot air rises (grin).

    Serendipitous moments undercut our comfortable belief that we live without symbol and ritual, that those things only occur in story, and that when we see them in scripture they were put there for symbolic value and not because the story actually happened that way. 

    I like this phrase “serendipitous moments.” I can see how such moments might qualify as irony, since such moments, if we notice them, poke holes in whatever comfortable belief we might be sheltering in. Such moments would throb with that tension between what we accept as being real and what in fact actually is real. whatever that might be. BTW, “comfortable belief” might appear a condescending phrase to some, but I think it applies as well as “comfortable pair of shoes”or “comfortable lifestyle,” which can be taken at face value as being purely descriptive terms. Unless, of course, you are being ironic …

    Personally, I love the idea that our lives unfold mythopoeically. So much of the meaning of our lives may lie in relations and as such may at times elude our grasp, cosmic as they are. It’s kinda like thinking of the Earth as being humankind’s only realm of influence when in fact the Earth is part of a burgeoning environment that we can’t even see the borders of, and who knows what carryings on we’re part of without our even knowing it. Except maybe when those serendipitous moments shine through.


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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